Friday, November 19, 2010

NHL Officiating, the Old Guard, and Colin Campbell

Props to Phil over at BBG for finding this.  (A bit of warning: These are hockey guys.  They swear...often.)

It's a series of e-mails between NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell and NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom.  Some if it touches with maligned (and now unemployed) official Dean Warren, but the majority of it is Colin Campbell bitching about penalties that were called on his son, Gregory Campbell, then a center with the Florida Panthers.

The discussion starts with Campbell complaining about the inadequacy of Warren, and then devolves into two separate complaints regarding penalties called in seemingly innocuous and unrelated games.  The author of the commentary (in between e-mails) does a good job of pinpointing which games Campbell is referring to by tracking Campbell's comments about the penalties and the situations in which they were called.  This detective work reveals that both incidents involved penalties called on his son.

That implication, that an NHL official is both able and apparently willing to use his power to attempt to influence the outcome of games, is disturbing in itself, but I actually want to pick at another point.  I think anyone can read the transcript and commentary and have an appreciation for how much of a shit this makes Campbell, and thus I have little to add.

Jumping away a little bit, back in May I wrote this article about the NHL adding it's first European referee, Marcus Vinnerborg from Sweden (resistance is futile).  The point I made then is the one I want to jump on now.  The more fresh faces in the NHL officiating ranks that break up the old boys club, the better.

I get the sense that among NHL referees, especially older referees, there is this explicitly defined concept of what hockey is, and the games are called according to that mental picture rather than the actual rules.  I feel like certain "hockey plays" that should be penalties are let go because of this thought floating around the heads of older NHL referees.

The best evidence of this came right after the lockout.  For the first two seasons, NHL officials called things basically as they should, and the inflated offensive numbers reflected this.  Then for some reason, the NHL took an "eh whatever attitude," and started to regress that old notion of hockey began to reassert itself.  This is where I take umbrage with certain excerpts of Campbell's and Walkom's discussion.

Walkom to Campbell:
"open ice hits are generally allowed on one on one battles"

What the hell is this, generally allowed?  This is exactly what I'm talking about.  Who cares if something is "a hockey play," or "generally allowed," a penalty is a penalty.  Shouldering a guy to the ground as the two of them glide towards the puck is interference and should be called as such.

Campbell to Walkom
The 3rd call on [player (Gregory Campbell)] was while they were down 5 on 4 and on a def zone face off vs that little fake artist [player (Marc Savard)] I had him in [city (New York as coach of the Rangers)] biggest faker going. And Warren fell for it when he grabbed his face on a face off. Your supposed to see the act, not call the embellishing act.

Look, I agree with Campbell that diving is a pox on the NHL and that referees need to do a better job of recognizing and policing it.  But I think it's bull that Campbell brings up the situation.  A penalty is a penalty.  This whole trend of not calling something because "it's the last minute of the game," or "it's the playoffs," needs to be shown the door.

Walkom's immediate reply to Campbell
that.s funny yet not funny..I think we have that data but it may work in his favor..that.s why I.m against data and more about IT..he doesn.t have it, never had it, and is average at best, probably never get it,

This pisses me off as a stats nerd as well as a rational human being.  If the stats don't support your argument, you need to get a new argument, not ignore the stats and develop intangibles.  Do you see what I mean when I say the NHL's old guard has this imaginary romantic concept of hockey to which they like to adhere?  Do you see how this is a problem?  (Also, how do these guys rise to such important ranks?  They're as literate at twelve year olds.)

Campbell to Walkom
this was awful. 1:30 left in 2-1 game for [team] and [player] scored with 2 second left to tie it up them won in OT. F*CK

Again, context doesn't matter.  A penalty is a penalty is a penalty.  A few e-mails later...

Campbell to Walkom
Keep Warren and gas this shithead. 90 seconds left and he calls a weak penalty.tripping. Makes me sick. If I was at the game I would have had to fine me.

Colin Campbell is clearly being rational...

I think we can all agree that Campbell is way out of line, and that there is a clear conflict of interest when he has to do ANYTHING that involves his son.  But we all know how sports parents can get.  I umpired Little League for years, and I've seen more than my fair share of idiots (and one incident that involved the police).  It's tough to say how serious Campbell is in the e-mails and how much he's just being Gregory's dad.  It's also hard to say if Walkom is serious himself, or just letting Campbell rant at him while he plays the good friend and nods.  A few of the jokes he makes seem to suggest the latter.  At the very least both men acted unprofessionally and should be disciplined.

Colin Campbell was interviewed Thursday evening on NHL Network about the situation and his answers were weaselly at best.  He said that his comments weren't directed at Savard (which is clearly untrue), and were instead directed at embellishers in general.  He mentioned that the NHL has a "diver's list" and that these players are watched.  (Which I personally find disturbing even though certain guys are going to garner certain reputations and those are going to affect the officials regardless.)  Campbell finished by saying that he wasn't attempting to exert any influence (which is debatable) and that "no one is capable of exerting such an influence" (yeah right).

Isolated incidents of idiocy don't worry me too much.  Colin Campbell acted like a jack*ss in this situation, yes.  But I don't think Campbell acting like a jerk, even when his son is involved, are really all that important.  The implication is frightening, but I think the reality is closer to Campbell's quote, that such an influence (if it exists) is very small.

I feel that the bigger issue is the "old guard" mentality that seems prevalent in the NHL.  Any time officials are doing anything other than calling what they see, its a recipe for disaster.  It's the reason I never wanted to know the inning or the score of any game I umpired.  If it's important (the game being over or there being a mercy rule situation) a coach will make it obvious.  Otherwise my job is to make the calls and let the players play the game, not stick to romantic notions of how it "should be played."  That's why I was so happy to see Vinnerborg come to the states (though I'll curse my TV the second he screws the Sabres).  He doesn't have all this "good old boys" and "hockey play" and "you don't make a call in that situation," and other such nostalgic nonsense floating around in his head.  He just calls what he sees.

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